Today was one of the holiest days I’ve had in a long while, and I’m not sure why, except right now, I am keenly aware of the fact that I am transitioning from a phase of my life that began five years ago, when I started to live on the road, intending to find myself—save myself—come hell or high water. When I began to travel full time, I was desperate. I was in a place where I knew, really knew, that if I didn’t get my shit together, I was going to die. I was drinking way too much, eating all the wrong things, punishing my body in any way I could muster, and giving myself away a piece at a time to anyone who asked for a chunk of me, whether they deserved it or not. I was believing lies about myself, ugly lies that had wrapped themselves like a noose around my neck and were starting to strangle me. Living on the road was sort of chosen, sort of forced on me, as my means of healing. And it worked. And now, my travels are about to end. In about two weeks, I leave to live in Philadelphia for a year. The acuity of knowing something is ending always makes it more precious. I’m trying to write a complete memoir about the experience of finding myself while living on the road, and 60,000 words can’t really do it justice, so I’m not sure how I intend to encapsulate it in a blog post. I guess I won’t even try.
What I will say is that what intended to be a year on the road turned into five, because I was determined to learn to live life as an act of trust, and I decided to walk through the doors that opened for me, and not force an end to my travels until it came naturally. I knew when the time to end my travels came, I would be emotionally, spiritually, and physically healed, and I would also be miraculously led to the place I was supposed to settle, at least for a time. These five years have been one of the greatest, most guided, most excruciating, beautiful gifts I have ever been given. I lost everything that didn’t matter (but everything I lost felt like it mattered at the time) and found everything that ever did. I traveled all of America and much of the world. I looked me in the face and looked me in the face and cried and screamed and wrote and sang and prayed, and the other night, as I was meditating, I gave myself a gift, maybe the greatest gift I have ever been given.
It started when imagined how I feel about the people I love most—my children, my brother, my mother, my nieces and nephews, the great love of my life, my best friends–and how it hurts me so much when they can’t see how beautiful they are, when they believe the lies people tell about them, when they punish themselves for being what they are when what they are is miracles. And I imagined I had a magic wand, and I could give them any gift in the world. The gift that I would give them is the ability to see the beauty I see in them, to know the power that resides in their bones, the brilliance that lives in their minds, the awesome gift that they are to me and to the world. And then, I imagined how I would feel if someone gave me that gift. If someone said to me, “You are beautiful,” and I just decided to believe them without question. And then, I imagined giving myself that gift. I imagined letting myself believe I was beautiful and magical and miraculous and brilliant, that my sins were forgivable, and my future was wide open in front of me, and anything, anything was possible. And I said to me, “Tawni, I love you.” And something washed over me. Love? I don’t know. It felt blue (I see feelings as colors), and even though I’ve tried saying that to myself a billion times for the past five years, this time was different. I believed myself. I was beautiful. I realized that this was what I was looking for all those years, the ability to live in my own skin without loathing the sight of myself. And there it was.
A few months ago, a series of wonderful things I choose to call miracles (others might call them coincidences, but I long ago stopped believing in that) led me to a beautiful year-long job teaching in Rosemont College’s MFA program, which has been one of the places I’ve fallen most deeply in love with during my sojourns. It also led me to the most generous, beautiful friends in the world who are giving me an incredible apartment to live in for a year. Yes, giving me. I asked to pay. They said no. I’m not sure how to even express the gratitude I feel to them. (I’m not sure they’d want to be named here, but if you know me, you know who they are.) They are such gifts to me. They have helped me to believe again in the goodness of humanity, which—I’ll be honest–I was questioning for a while. The road also led me to Carla Spataro, the head of Rosemont’s MFA program, who became one of my best friends and believed in me completely and generously during some of the most difficult years of my life. She has taken me into the literary family she creates with so much tenderness, dedication and love, and I don’t know how to express the gratitude I feel for that gift either. I have found so many new friends in Philadelphia in the last five years, and I can barely wait to spend more time with them.
And yet. The place the road ultimately brought me was home. Spiritually, emotionally, and physically, I came home. I found the me that was buried under years of life and abuse (by self and others), and I also found my way back to the beautiful mountain upon which I was raised, and the beautiful family that lives here. After my father’s death, I sort of collapsed into my own cocoon of pain, and my family and I drifted apart, but the second worst day of my life (the first being my father’s death) happened while I was living on the road, and there was only one place I could think to run. To the arms of my beautiful family. It turned out we were all in transition. And we fell in love again. Became closer than we had ever been, which is saying something, because when I was a child, we were the most tightly knit family I’ve ever seen. Now, we are tighter. I’ve spent more and more time on my mountain as I’ve become healthier and healthier, because the healthier you become, the more you want to be around the people who really love you, and these people REALLY love me. As in, they would jump in front of a bullet for me. I’ve spent more and more time at the church my daddy founded and my beloved brother now pastors, and I’ve realized that church is the core of who I am. I’ve spent tons of time with my children too, who are the best thing that ever happened to me and moved back to New Mexico during my sojourns. And now I’m leaving all that. And even though I’m excited about my new life, leaving home breaks my heart.
This morning, I woke up to the sound of a second voice in my mother’s kitchen, a neighbor who attends the church my brother pastors. I’ve known her peripherally and really liked her, but I’ve never gotten to know her well. In an uncharacteristic act of social nicety (I’ve kinda turned into a recluse during my travels), I decided to go sit at the table with her and my mother and have coffee with them, and she said something to me that changed me. She said, “You glow so brightly. When you walk into a room, it physically lights up. You can physically see God in you.” I was stunned and moved, and I laughed and told her that a woman at Rosemont had called me the Madonna, and I’d been just as shocked, because all anyone had ever called me for most of my adult life was a whore.
But then, I realized something. That “Tawni is a whore” shit was always a lie. That whore thing was a label slapped on me by the first man who raped me, and driven home again and again by other abusers, but it was always a lie. The point of this wandering was to strip away the lies and find the true me, and the true me is not a whore. The true me shines when she walks into a room. And I told her that I was different person now than I’d been five years ago, and then I realized how true that was. I am not the same Tawni I was five years ago, not even close. And then, I told her all about my travels, visions and dreams I’d not shared with anyone, experiences I keep very close to my heart, and she loved me more at the end of it all. To speak your truth and have it be believed is one of the greatest gifts you can be given. I wondered, after I spoke to her if her presence was a reflection of the gift I’d given myself the night before, my choice to believe I was beautiful.
After she left, I was about to shower, and my mom called me into the kitchen. Just outside the door, a cat was killing a snake on the porch, and while I’m not much for death and dismemberment, it felt like a sign, like the end of the lies I had believed about myself. I was the only one who could kill the snake, the lie, that was wrapped like a noose around my neck. I was the only one who could look at me and decide I was beautiful. I was the only one who could believe the people who said I was the Madonna, not the people who said I was the whore. We are always, always the only true arbiters of our identities. We are always, always the only true arbiters of our destinies.
I’ve just returned from my evening run, after which I laid on the rock I have made into an altar. It is very close to the rock my father used to pray on, and I lay on it all night sometimes, staring at the stars, meditating, praying. Much of my last book, So Speak the Stars, was written on that rock. Today, I laid there listening to music, watching the clouds, and Alanis Morriset’s “Thank You” came on, and I cried. Thank you terror. Thank you disillusionment. No, I mean it. Thank you. And P.S. Thank you, rock. Who knew a simple gray stone covered in moss could become a magic carpet that carried a girl back to her heart’s truest home?
And now, in two weeks, I’m leaving it. I knew I would be given a place to settle down when the healing was complete, and it now waits for me in Philadelphia. But truth be told, I’m not leaving my rock. I carry this rock in my heart. Always. I carry this mountain in my heart. Always. I carry the daddy who told me a billion times that I was beautiful before he died, and the mother who reminded me of my beauty when I almost died myself. I carry the big brother who shows me every day what courage is, and the children who are the greatest gifts I have ever been given. I carry my father’s church in my bones. I am my father’s church. I don’t think he’d be offended to hear me say that. I think he would say my brother and I are the greatest work of his life. If I do light up a room when I walk into it, it is my father’s church, my mountain, my beloved ones, and yes, my God, whom I rediscovered in a whole new way during my travels, shining from my bones.
I am grateful. I am grieving. I am hopeful. I am whole.